May 31, 2011
By Erica Varlese
With a resume that boasts her status as a former truck driver, warehouse worker, and steel hauler, Sandy Pope is running a strong campaign as a candidate for the Teamster’s General President. The election will take place this fall, with Pope running against long-term incumbent James Hoffa and a potential third candidate, Fred Gregare. With the possibility of a complete change in IBT leadership, not to mention the Teamsters’ first female president, there is a lot on the line for the union in this election. Pope shared her thoughts on the campaign, the future of the labor movement, and her role as a woman in the presidential race for the U.S.’s arguably best known union.
When did you decide that you wanted to run for president? Last summer. It was a pretty difficult decision; it’s quite an undertaking. Our union, while it’s very strong at the bottom with a lot of local autonomy and lot of independence in the locals, there’s a lot of power in the presidency to dictate how resources go and the direction of the union, the different things that we emphasize and how we approach them, whether it’s organizing or different bargaining contracts. That was why it was important to go against Hoffa instead of some smaller change and not being able to affect much.
Is providing something new and different working in your favor?
I think being “new and different” is definitely working in my favor and I think that’s exactly what we need. The labor movement needs it and our union needs it. We need a different approach. I’m a traditional teamster in a non-traditional body I was a truck driver for years, came up through the ranks of the union, as a shop steward, as an organizer, as a business agent. I went step-by step. I can understand the challenges that we’re facing. I go through it every day in my own local. From the feedback I’m getting from people out there, they really do think it’s important. I get emails all the time from 50-year old truck drivers saying, “It’s about time we had someone who drove a truck and who knows what it’s like to be a member.”
You said you’re a “traditional Teamster in an nontraditional body.” How do you feel being a female candidate is affecting the race?
I think it’s been mostly positive, it helps me stand out a lot, especially when I’m facing someone with a famous name. A lot of people know who I am. I may not know all of their names, but especially after the last convention where I spoke on the convention floor a few times, people recognize me and talk to me when that might otherwise not happen. It’s a big union. I’m sure there are some people who don’t think a woman can run the union, but I’m not hearing much of that.
I saw that you had worked with the Coalition of Labor Women. Is diversifying the union and the labor movement in general an important next step?
It’s extremely important. Our union is probably 25 to 30 percent women members and I think we have six or seven women principal officers out of roughly 500 locals. I want to set up a leadership institute within the union, for everyone, not just for women. We have so many new challenges facing us with the economy and bargaining with very sophisticated companies and lawyers. We’re going to really have to do a much, much better job of educating our leadership in the locals and members.
What kind of challenges is the labor movement facing at this particular point in history?
What isn’t challenging us right now? Our union is very strong because we are a bottom up union in our structure and where our leadership comes from. We’re not a staff-dominated union by any means. We just have to up our game, as I said. We need to build much more solidarity within the labor movement. I’d like to see all the unions back together in the same federation. It’s more important to work out our differences and work together than being split apart, especially right now.
Since you’ve been with the Teamsters, what has been your proudest moment?
My proudest moment? When I got hired as a truck driver laughs When I worked for the International under Carey, I worked with the warehouse division. We were working with a very strong local in New Jersey and we were able to procure a contract with a big union busting company that wanted to come into the area. We got a good contract and we got a neutrality agreement. It led to either saving or gaining thousands of jobs over a period of time. That took a lot of work and we were able to do some really big things. Unfortunately, since Hoffa’s been in, his people let the neutrality agreements expire and it’s all gone backwards. The company has moved out of New Jersey and just threw 1300 workers out of their jobs and another few hundred in the DC area.